You might expect Chef Daniel Roberts of L.A.’s Café del Rey to have more offerings on his menu that reflect his roots as a native New Yorker who hails from an Italian-American family of foodies. Yet, while he can cook veal saltimbocca that would make anyone’s mama proud, a range of cultures and cuisines, including Asian, Latin American, and Mediterranean, inspire Roberts’s repertoire. At the helm of Café del Rey since late 2010, Chef Roberts took the OpenTable R.Q. test, revealing his ideas on aphrodisiacs, Valentine’s Day, and why you probably won’t bump into him on a date at your local coffeehouse.
What are your thoughts on food and drink having aphrodisiacal qualities?
I think it’s more mental than anything. There may be certain foods that affect people differently. Chiles, for instance, actually heat you up inside because of the pH level, the acid. You feel that heat inside you. Some people really get off on that, if they have a strong, tolerable palate.
If you had to pick a favorite aphrodisiac ingredient, what might it be?
The first thing that does it for me is vanilla. It affects the five senses for me.
Aphrodisiacs aside, what are some dishes you associate with being sexy?
Delicate foods; nothing really heavy. You don’t feel sexy when you’re all weighed down from eating. And, it has to have some pop to it. Something like a nice oyster with white zinfandel vinaigrette and some foie gras. It’s the ultimate surf and turf dish. People who’ve never had it are like “Wow!” afterwards. Really, though, if your date is not working out, I don’t care how good the food is — it’s not gonna be sexy.
Have you ever wooed a love interest with a particular dish or drink?
It’s more about the person who’s cooking than a particular dish. I’m a passionate person. For me, it’s how you introduce it, what you pair it with. Those things make it impressive. That said, a sweet that’s always a huge hit is a vanilla-amaretto-mascarpone mousse piped into a hollowed-out strawberry and topped with vanilla pistachio dust. It’s got so much flavor, the fresh berries always excite the mouth, and the creamy texture and the sexiness of amaretto all work together.
Do you have a dish or food you might recommend to diners seeking to set the mood on Valentine’s Day?
I believe in the sharing concept. It automatically opens it up. A great sharing dish I have is the Wagyu beef tartare. We do it picadillo-style with black currants, black olives, shallots, harissa vinaigrette, and we mix all that with small diced beef and serve it with potato gaufrettes seasoned with truffle salt. The chips with the tartar give you crunch, spice, sweet, and you get great mouth-feel from the beef, so it excites on multiple levels.
Can vegetables be sexy?
Sure. It starts with asking, “How do you take a basic vegetable and bring new flavors to it?” And then it comes down to creativity. How are you using it on that plate? How are you cooking it? Are you changing its texture? Are you adding components to the plate? And then, it’s all about what flavors will work well. Adding in profiles. Flavoring it with fresh herbs. Doing something like adding a little chili vinaigrette or emulsifying chili into a sauce will give it a little bit of a kick. That’s how I might make a vegan or vegetarian dish more hot-blooded.
What foods or drinks, if any, strike you as particularly unromantic?
Haggis. Liverwurst. Blood sausage. Coffee. Goldschlagger. Sambuca.
Do you have any suggestions for diners seeking to make a meal at your restaurant as romantic as possible?
I greet a lot of our diners and try to build a foundation, so that I understand how to lead them through the dining experience and what to surprise them with. It’s about connecting with your guests just like they’re connecting with their dates. Once you can do that, you’ll know how to surprise them and add that wow factor so that what they’re eating is going to dance in their mouth.
What are your thoughts on PDA in restaurants?
I’ve seen pretty much all of it in the restaurant. I think PDA is fine. If you’re making out-making out, I think it’s probably inappropriate. But, holding hands or kissing your date at the table? There’s nothing wrong with that!
Have you had any proposals in your restaurant?
We’ve had a few. One was just recently — and she accepted!
Restaurants can be hotbeds of fraternization, so to speak. Have you or any of your coworkers met a spouse/partner at your restaurant?
Yes. ‘Nuff said.
Valentine’s Day often gets a bad rap as being an overly commercial holiday. What are your feelings on it?
As a chef, I enjoy it. I get to come up with a great tasting menu with multiple options for our guests. It’s challenging, as you have to come up with great dishes that everyone is going to enjoy no matter what they pick, and hope that diners are going to come away feeling the love.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Chef Roberts! We’re sure the couples dining with you will definitely leave feeling the love.
Book a table at Cafe del Rey and let Chef Roberts be your guide for an adventurous and romantic meal!